TIME celebrities

Jerry Seinfeld Says He Is Not on the Autism Spectrum After All

Jerry Seinfeld
Jerry Seinfeld pauses as he is interviewed on the red carpet at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Oct. 19, 2014, in Washington. Kevin Wolf—AP

"I’m not on the spectrum”

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has backtracked on recent comments he made stating that he was on the autism spectrum.

In an interview with Access Hollywood, Seinfeld said he does not fall on the spectrum, contrary to an interview with NBC a few weeks prior in which he said he did.

“I don’t have autism, I’m not on the spectrum,” the Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee star said Wednesday. “I was just watching a play about it, and … I related to it on some level.”

The comedian was commended by members of the autism community after he told NBC’s Brian Williams in early November that he might be autistic. “I think in a very drawn-out scale, I think I’m on the spectrum,” he said, adding that he didn’t see being on the spectrum as dysfunctional but merely an “alternative mind-set.”

TIME Autism

Major Autism Studies Identify Dozens of Contributing Genes

Researchers collaborate on two large studies identifying the genetic basis of autism

Two new studies exploring the genetic basis of autism tie mutations in hundreds of genes to the disease.

Several teams of researchers collaborated on the studies, both published in the journal Nature, and found that about 60 of the genes are considered “high confidence,” meaning there’s a 90% chance that mutations within those genes contribute to risk for autism. Both studies show through genomic sequencing that many of these mutations are de novo, meaning that parents do not have the gene mutation, but they present spontaneously just before a child is conceived in either the sperm or egg.

It’s long been believed that autism is genetic, but a lack of large studies and advanced genomic sequencing has precluded any sort of consensus about what genes might be at play. But in the last couple years, scientists have been able to look at the genetic mutations in hundreds of people with autism and identify genes that likely factor into a child’s development of the disorder. In the two new studies, scientists were able to expand their work and look at thousands of people.

In one of the studies, several institutions used data from the Simons Simplex Collection (SSC), which is a collection of DNA samples from 3,000 families. In each of the families, one individual had autism. The researchers compared the gene sequences of the individual with autism to their unaffected family members. After analysis, they estimated that de novo mutations contribute to autism in at least 27% of families, where only one member has the disorder.

The other study, by researchers at 37 different institutions as part of the Autism Sequencing Consortium, looked at 14,000 DNA samples of parents with affected children. It found 33 genes the researchers say definitely increase risk for autism, should there be a mutation.

Even though there may be hundreds or even thousands of genes that contribute to a child’s risk of developing autism, the researchers on both studies found that the mutations appear to converge on a much smaller number of biological functions, like nerve-cell communication or proteins known to cause inherited disability. “In my view, the real importance of these studies is not diagnosis, and it’s not figuring out exactly what percentage of people have de novo mutations, it’s about laying the foundation to transform the understanding of the biological mechanisms of autism,” says Dr. Matthew State, chair of the psychiatry department at University of California, San Francisco and a co-leader of the SSC study, as well as a senior participant on the other study.

State doesn’t believe that the findings will mean that families will one day get their genomes sequenced to spot hundreds of possible mutations. Instead, they could lay the groundwork for discovering how autism develops, and what potential treatments, or even drugs, could help fight it.

TIME Autism

Autistic Kids May Benefit From This Kind of Parent-Led Therapy

Parents can learn how to give effective therapy to their children with autism, a new study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry finds.

Researchers at Stanford University looked at a type of therapy called Pivotal Response Training (PRT), which is one the of the handful of treatments shown to be effective for kids on the autism spectrum, says Kari Berquist, PhD, study co-author and a clinical instructor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences and an autism clinician at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. The therapy focuses on improving kids’ motivation language skills by reinforcing their use of language related to the task at hand. One of the advantages is it can be done anywhere: anytime a child attempts to ask for something by name—a toy, say—they’d be rewarded with the item they requested, which reinforces their use of language.

They enrolled a group of parents of 53 autistic children between ages 2-6 in either a PRT course, which taught parents how to do the therapy with their kids, or a psychoeducation group, which taught general autism information. The children joined their parents for several sessions.

Researchers found that after just 12 weeks, 84% of parents were able to learn how to give effective PRT, and the children in the PRT group made significantly more progress than the other group in use of language and how often they were communicating.

“Group models are very new to autism treatment,” says Berquist, but the study shows that they can be effective while also being cheaper and coming with a built-in social support for parents. “I think this really allows us to get more people at once, to give more services at one time.”

TIME Autism

Broccoli-Sprout Compound Could Help With Autism, Study Suggests

The study was "interesting and important" but ultimately too small to make a clear link, one medical researcher said

A broccoli sprout compound may help with behavioral problems in some people with autism, a new study suggests.

Though the short-term study was small and did not see improvements in a third of the participants, it was still “promising” according to the lead researcher, CBS reports.

“This is just one study, and it’s a preliminary study,” said Dr. Kanwaljit Singh from Massachusetts General Hospital for Children.

44 boys and men with autism between the ages of 13 and 27 took part in the study. Some received sulforaphane, a compound found in broccoli and other vegetables that has previously been studied for its health benefits, while others received a placebo.

The compound was chosen because it can help trigger a heat-shock response, a series of biological events that protect cells from stress during fevers; some people with autism have been known to see improvement in regard to repetitive behaviors, for example, during fevers. Around 80 percent of the participants had a history of experiencing the “fever effect.”

Within four weeks of the 18-week study, parents were already seeing improvements in areas of communication, hyperactivity and irritability. Researchers, unaware of which participants were receiving a placebo, noticed similar changes. By week 18, roughly half of the sulforaphane participants had better social interactions, and, four weeks after the study and the sulforaphane stopped, such improvements were less apparent.

The head of medical research for the organization Autism Speaks, Dr. Paul Wang, said the study was “interesting and important” but ultimately too small to tell for sure whether the compound can help with autism treatment.

[CBS]

TIME vaccines

How Words Can Kill in the Vaccine Fight

Farrow: Right ideas, wrong words
Farrow: Right ideas, wrong words NBC/Getty Images

To own the argument you've got to own the language. At the moment, the dangerous anti-vaxxers are winning that war

Chances are you wouldn’t sit down to a plate of sautéed thymus glands, to say nothing of a poached patagonian tooth fish; and the odds are you’d be reluctant to tuck into a monkey peach too. But sweetbreads, Chilean sea bass and kiwifruit? They’re a different matter—except they’re not. All of those scrumptious foods once went by those less scrumptious names—but few people went near them until there was something pleasant to call them. Words have that kind of power.

That’s true in advertising, in politics and in business too. And it’s true when it comes to vaccines as well—but in this case those words can have a lethal power. The bad news is that in the vaccine word game, the good guys (they would be the ones who know that vaccines are safe, effective and save from two to three million lives per year) are being caught flat-footed by the bad guys (those would be the ones whose beliefs are precisely opposite—and therefore precisely wrong).

The battle plays out on Twitter, with the handy—and uninformed—handle #CDCWhistleBlower repeatedly invoked by virtually every fevered anti-vax tweet like a solemn incantation. The term refers to Dr. William Thompson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who supposedly blew the lid off of the great vaccine conspiracy by confessing to irregularities in a 2004 study that deliberately excluded data suggesting a higher rate of autism in African-American boys who had been vaccinated. Scary stuff alright, except that the study was poorly conducted, the data was left out for purely statistical and methodological reasons, and the paper itself has now been withdrawn. But the hashtag stain remains all the same—with the usually noble whistleblower label being put to low purpose.

Something similar is true with the widely cited Vaccine Injury Court, another frightening term, except that no such thing exists—at least not by that name. It’s true there is an Office of Special Masters which, under a smart 1986 law, hears the claims of parents who believe their children have been injured by vaccines. The panel was created to provide no-fault compensation in all such cases, since drugs that are as vital and are administered as widely as vaccines could never be manufactured or sold affordably if the companies themselves had to pour millions and even billions of dollars into defending themselves against claims.

It’s true too that the court has paid out about $2.8 billion to parents and families since 1989, but those awards are overwhelmingly for relatively minor side effects that are fully disclosed by the ostensibly secretive CDC for any parents caring to look on the agency’s website. And to put that $2.8 billion in perspective: The money went to 3,727 claimants over an approximate generation-long period during which 78 million American children were safely vaccinated, preventing an estimated 322 million illnesses and 732,000 deaths. If you’re crunching the numbers (and it’s not hard to do) that factors out to a .0048% risk of developing what is overwhelmingly likely to be a transient problem—in exchange for a lifetime of immunity from multiple lethal diseases.

But brace for more anyway because October is, yes, Vaccine Injury Awareness Month. Because really, what does a dangerous campaign of misinformation need more than 31 catchily named days devoted to itself?

Still, there’s no denying that catchiness works, and on this one the doctors and other smart folks are going to have to get off the dime. MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow—who either is or isn’t to your liking depending in part on whether MSNBC itself is—has emerged as a smart, persuasive, often brilliantly cutting advocate for the vaccine cause. And on his Oct. 10 show he deftly filleted the arguments of a vocal anti-vax mother whose child is undeniably suffering from a number of illnesses, but who wrong-headedly blames them on vaccines. In this show as in others he invites his audience to learn the truth about vaccines and to connect with him and one another via the handle #VaccineDebate.

And right there he tripped up. For the billionth time (as Farrow knows) there is no debate. Just as there is no climate change debate. Just as there is no moon-landings-were-faked debate. And just as there was nothing to the tobacco company’s disingenuous invention of a “cigarette controversy,” a fallback position they assumed when even they knew that cigarettes were killers and that they couldn’t straight-facedly say otherwise, so the best they could do was sow doubt and hope people stayed hooked.

Little more than 30 seconds spent listening to Farrow talk about vaccines makes it unmistakably clear where he stands—but the very fact that we now live in a hashtag culture means that it’s by no means certain he’s going to get that 30 seconds. So step up your game, smart people. You want to get the vaccine message out, do it in a way that works in the 21st century. And if that means a hashtag, why not #VaccinesWork or #VaccinesAreSafe or #VaccinesSaveLives. Of course, there’s also the more thorough and satisfying #AntivaxxersDon’tKnowWhatThey’reTalkingAboutSoPleaseStopListeningToThem, but that gets you exactly halfway to your 140-character limit. So keep it brief folks—and make it stick.

TIME vaccines

Watch a Science Cop Take on the Anti-Vaccine Movement

"Again, and always, they're wrong."

Nothing gets the anti-vaccine fringe going quite so much as believing they’ve found a scandal—some bit of gotcha’ proof that the global medical establishment really, truly is covering up a terrible secret about the dangers of vaccines.

Recently, this always-vocal but rarely-rational crowd announced that they had what they were looking for, with the discovery that a comparatively old study had excluded some data suggesting that African-American children who had been vaccinated were slightly likelier than other kids to have developed autism.

But again—and always—the anti-vaxxers were wrong, misunderstanding the science, misrepresenting the findings, and recruiting the worst possible person imaginable to argue their wrong-headed case.

TIME Developmental Disorders

How Brain Waves May Be the Clue to Diagnosing Autism

Unique EEG fingerprints reveal how autistic brains process sights and sounds

Diagnosing autism as early as possible, even before the first noticeable symptoms of social and developmental delays emerge, is becoming a critical strategy for reducing the condition’s most severe symptoms. Experts have long known that children with autism process sensory information – sights and sounds in particular – in different ways than unaffected children.

In a new study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Sophie Molholm, from the departments of pediatric and neuroscience at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, proposes that those differences may lay the foundation for social and communication deficits in some children later on.

Molholm and her team took electroencephalogram (EEG) readings from more than 40 children aged six years to 17 years diagnosed with autism and compared their patterns to those of unaffected children of similar age and other characteristics. All children were given either a flash cue, a beep cue or a combination of both, and asked to press a button when these stimuli occurred. A cap with 70 sensors picked up the children’s brain responses every two milliseconds during these tasks, including those that recorded how the brain first processed the sensory information.

MORE: Behavior Therapy Normalizes Brains of Autistic Children

The children with autism showed a distinctly different brain wave signature from those without the condition. Specifically, the signals in those with autism showed differences in the speed in which the sights or sounds were processed, and in how the sensory neurons recruited neighbors in more far-flung areas of the brain to register and make sense of the information. And the more abnormal this multi-processing was, the more severe the child’s autistic symptoms. “By developing this tool in the older cohort of children we can then figure out which ones are the most promising and then go test them in younger children,” says Molholm.

It’s also possible that because the children she studied were older, the differences in their EEG patterns were the result of autism, rather than a sign of changes that precede the disorder. But, she says, “If you ask me to make an educated guess, I would say these are part of autism, and they represent neuropathology related to having the disorder. It seems unlikely to me that you get autism and then develop atypical auditory processing.”

MORE: Autism Symptoms Disappeared With Behavioral Therapy In Babies

Molholm says the sample was too small to use the profile for diagnosing autism, but it could lead to such a test if the results are confirmed and repeated. To confirm the findings, scientists will have to intervene with behavioral strategies for helping the different regions of the brain work in a more coordinated way when confronted with visual and auditory cues. If that reduces autism symptoms, then EEG profiling could become one of a number of new ways that doctors can start identifying those at highest risk – however young — of developing autism.

TIME Developmental Disorders

Autism Symptoms Disappeared With Behavioral Therapy In Babies

Baby on fur rug
Getty Images

Parents using ground-breaking new techniques with infants essentially cured their babies of developmental delays

For the first time, researchers report that treating early signs of autism in infants as young as 6 months can essentially help them to avoid developmental delays typical of the disorder. And the intervention doesn’t involve pills or invasive surgery but an intensive behavioral therapy provided by the babies’ parents, according to the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Kristin Hinson was one of those parents. She knew what autism looked like. With two of her three children showing developmental delays, she was on the lookout for similar signals when her son Noah was born. And at 6 months, they came. Noah began avoiding eye contact with her and other family members, his muscle tone was low, and he started lagging in the early infant milestones like rolling over and responding to sounds and people. “He was doing everything, but everything was a little sloppy,” says Hinson.

Because she had two children affected by autism, Noah was enrolled in a study of infant siblings of autistic children at the University of California Davis. Noah’s symptoms appeared relatively early — at that age, doctors can’t diagnose the developmental disorder, but they know the hallmarks that are strongly associated with it. Noah’s sibling history also meant there was a good chance he would eventually show delays in language and social skills as well.

MORE: Brain Imaging Could Detect Autism Risk in Infants as Young as 6 Months

He was fortunate enough, however, to be one of seven children to begin an intensive, parent-based program for treating autism in infants as young as 6 months. The goal of the program is to slow or avoid the symptoms of autism that often mean affected children need special education or other formal care as they get older.

Hinson attended 12 sessions for an hour once a week at the Institute, and continued to apply what she had learned there during each of her interactions with Noah at home for six weeks while following up with their counselor. The techniques she and the other parents learned were based on the Early Start Denver Model, which was developed by Sally Rogers, a professor of psychiatry at UC Davis, and Dr. Geraldine Dawson at Duke University.

The program involved intensive and intentional play by trained therapists at children’s homes. Once a week, the therapists went to the families’ homes and purposefully engaged with the toddlers, who were between three years and five years old. Even when they were rebuffed, the therapists would persist, finding objects that appealed to the children and inserting themselves into the child’s play with that object so they were forced to have more social engagement. Eventually, the children responded, and even showed brain changes that suggested their brain patterns were normalizing to look more like those of children unaffected by autism.

With the latest group, Rogers moved the program earlier, to babies between 6 months and 15 months old, well before autism is usually diagnosed. Because the babies were so young, Rogers wanted to test whether parents could be taught the same techniques that therapists used, so the strategy could be applied more consistently and frequently than a few times a week, and during daily interactions with the infants—while they were fed, diapered, bathed and more.

MORE: Study: Siblings of Autistic Kids Show Similar Brain Activity

The results were astounding. Six of the seven infants in the study essentially caught up in their learning and language skills by age two or three. They no longer showed developmental delays in social communication or language, and behaved just as a control group of children unaffected by the disorder.

“At 18 months, Noah just blossomed,” says Hinson. “He started talking, and really socializing. Before, he wasn’t really engaging with others, and all of a sudden it felt like a light flipped on.”

Noah is attending a mainstream preschool, and Hinson doesn’t anticipate he will need any special education or tutoring to keep up with his classmates once he enters kindergarten,

Doctors, especially psychiatrists, don’t like to use the word “cure.” But, says Rogers of the small, promising group of infants like Noah who were part of the study, “We are curing their developmental delays.”

MORE: Behavior Therapy Normalizes Brains of Autistic Children

She’s careful not to suggest that the behavioral therapy can cure children of autism, since the only a handful of babies were involved, and they haven’t been studied long-term yet. But the findings do support the idea that intervening early, and with intensive therapy, can make a difference in the trajectory of the disorder.

The results also suggest that the progression of autism isn’t inevitable, and that its symptoms aren’t entirely biologically or genetically preordained. “If a baby doesn’t smile at you, doesn’t make eye contact, doesn’t respond pleasurably to your many interactions or doesn’t ever call for your attention, you don’t know if you’re on the right track,” she says of the typical early signs of autism. “If the message you get from them is that they aren’t interested, then you’re not going to continue.” Over, time, she says, that limits the number of social learning opportunities that the babies have, and they may spiral deeper and deeper into their own world. “Over time, the parents and children accommodate the child’s interest in objects and lack of interest in people.”

The behavioral training that she provides parents counters this cycle, and forces parents to find ways to engage their child, even if it means using the inanimate objects that appeal to them. If an infant is captivated by a stuffed animal, for example, then parents are trained to enter their baby’s field of vision, and play with the animal by using it to tickle the child, or tickle himself. The parent might even hide the stuffed toy under her shirt, and encourage the baby to find it. “The parent takes over so the child is now interested in the parent because there is a game going on with the toy and the parent,” says Rogers. “The key is to create a social game so the object is now serving the people instead of taking over the child’s attention.”

That shift takes effort, however, and it isn’t easy. “The first month I felt really frustrated,” admits Hinson. “There was a lot of pressure on me.” She says that it took most of the 12 week program before she felt completely comfortable with the new way of interacting with Noah, with inserting herself into his “circle” of attention at every opportunity, and with waiting for him to respond to her forays at communication.

But, she says, it was well worth the effort, and it comes easily. “Every new skill, like teaching him nursery rhymes and songs, or trying to get him to share something, and show me something, didn’t come natural to me at first. But when he started giving me some reciprocation, like smiling and babbling, it was like I was getting rewarded for the hard work.”

The skills are “completely doable,” says Hinson, and far less intrusive than having therapists visit the home once a week, which she did for her two older children who were developmentally delayed. “It’s brilliant if you can get the hands-on training. Because as parents, we are in their circle all the time, every day of their lives, and what better way to help them than to do it every day at every opportunity.”

While she’ll never know if the program was actually responsible for helping Noah to avoid developmental delays, Hinson is sure of one thing. “If they could have had something like this for my other children, I think they would be completely different children today.”

 

TIME Research

Journal Retracts Paper that Questioned CDC Autism Study

A paper that claimed government scientists covered up data showing a connection between vaccines and autism has been pulled by its publisher

Earlier in August, the journal Translational Neurodegeneration, an open access, peer-reviewed journal, published a re-analysis of a 2004 paper published in Pediatrics that looked at MMR vaccines and autism. The re-analysis of the data, by biochemical engineer Brian Hooker of Simpson University, claimed to find a higher rate of vaccination against MMR among a subset — African-American boys — of the original study population who developed autism than among those who did not, a finding that Hooker claims was suppressed by the authors of the original paper from the Centers of Disease Control. One of the co-authors of the 2004 paper, William Thompson, released a statement admitting to omitting the data after a secretly recorded conversation he had with Hooker was released on YouTube. (Thompson was not available for comment.)

MORE: Whistleblower Claims CDC Covered Up Data Showing Vaccine-Autism Link

Now, however, the editors of Translational Neurodegeneration have retracted Hooker’s paper, noting on its site that “This article has been removed from the public domain because of serious concerns about the validity of its conclusions. The journal and publisher believe that its continued availability may not be in the public interest. Definitive editorial action will be pending further investigation.”

TIME medicine

Whistleblower Claims CDC Covered Up Data Showing Vaccine-Autism Link

The claim, however, may just be more unsubstantiated fuel from the anti-vaccination movement

If you haven’t noticed, there’s a war going on between those who believe in the health benefits of vaccines – that they can prevent deadly infectious diseases such as measles and polio – and those that believe that the immunizations do more harm than good. Now one of the authors of a 2004 government study that found similar vaccination rates among children with and without autism says the study omitted some important data.

The vaccine war is being fought on social media, in social circles and increasingly in doctor’s offices, as physicians are faced with doubts and questions from parents who find themselves being recruited onto the side of skepticism. Skepticism is healthy, and the sign of curious minds, but not when it flies in the face of evidence. Especially gold standard, rigorous scientific evidence that has been accumulating for decades and shows that vaccines are not linked with an increased risk of the developmental disorder.

William Thompson, a senior scientist at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and one of the authors of a 2004 study published in the journal Pediatrics, spoke with Brain Hooker, who serves on the board of Focus Autism (which was founded to “put an end to the needless harm of children by vaccination and other environmental factors”), about the data that was not included in the final report. The study looked at both healthy children and those with autism, to see if there were any differences in their rates of being vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), and found none. That suggested that childhood immunizations likely were not contributing to an increased risk of autism. Hooker and Thompson, however, discussed a subset of the 624 children with autism and 1824 without the condition who were studied and Thompson admitted that among African-American boys, the incidence of autism was higher among those who were vaccinated than among those who weren’t. But that information was not part of the paper. Thompson claims he was not aware that the discussion was being recorded, and his statements appeared in a video released on YouTube on August 22 entitled “CDC Whistleblower Revealed.”

Did the CDC cover up the data, as Hooker claims? A couple of things to keep in mind, both about the people behind the video and about how epidemiological studies like the one published in Pediatrics work (and explained in more detail in this article from Science-Based Medicine). For starters, the video was narrated by Andrew Wakefield, the British researcher responsible for seeding the questions about vaccines and autism in the first place. In 2010, the General Medical Council in the UK revoked his license to practice medicine and a year later, the journal that published his paper concluded that his findings were fraudulent.

Next, any time scientists take the original population of participants in a study, however large, and drill down to analyze trends in a subgroup – in this case the African-American boys – the power of the associations they find dwindles. That’s because the numbers get smaller, and in order to be statistically relevant – something known as statistical significance to statisticians – certain threshold numbers and confidence intervals for the connection have to be reached. In the 2004 study, the scientists looked at a smaller set of 355 children with autism and 1020 without for whom they had Georgia state birth certificates, which included additional information that might be relevant for any associations, such as birth weight, gestational age, and mother’s age, race and education. “This information was not available for the children without birth certificates; hence the CDC study did not present data by race on black, white or other race children form the whole study sample. It presented the results on black and white/other race children from the group with birth certificates,” the CDC notes in a statement responding to the video. Thompson claims that the findings were statistically significant, but results from smaller numbers of subjects still don’t hold as much weight as correlations found in the larger group.

In addition, it’s important to note that the study simply correlated age at vaccination and reports of autism, which says nothing about the direction of the connection. For example, the authors of the 2004 study note that “Case children, especially those 3 to 5 years of age, were more likely than control children to have been vaccinated before 36 months of age.” The association between vaccination and symptoms, however, was more likely due to the fact that the children had to be immunized in order to register in preschool, and doesn’t necessarily indicate that the shots contributed to the autism.

In a statement issued through his attorneys, Thompson says “Reasonable scientists can and do differ in their interpretation of information.” He calls for transparency in the data collecting and reporting process, but says that the way that the 2004 study was presented does not negate the importance of vaccination. “I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives. I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits.”

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